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"Play to the whistle" is the cliche everyone knows.
Sometimes NFL players are asked to play past the whistle — without any late hits — just in case the officials screw up and decide on the fly to reverse a decision.
Maybe a really bad whistle on a touchdown pass by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in an AFC wild-card playoff game didn't affect the Las Vegas Raiders' defense. But the touchdown shouldn't have counted, according to the rules. And the NFL didn't make a statement, long after the Bengals' win ended, that got it right.
On a third down late in the second quarter, Burrow rolled to his right. Near the sideline, he threw what looked to be a legit pass to the back of the end zone. Tyler Boyd grabbed it, but a whistle blew right after Burrow released the ball. The officials huddled and decided that Burrow wasn't out of bounds, and it was a touchdown. A replay showed Burrow wasn't close to being out of bounds when he threw it.
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2022
What makes it even tougher for Raiders fans is the officials said they felt the whistle blew after the catch, when it clearly did not. The whistle came with the ball in the air.
"We confirmed with the referee and the crew that on that play — they got together and talked — they determined that they had a whistle, but that the whistle for them on the field was blown after the receiver caught the ball," NFL senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson told a pool reporter.
Anderson was asked if the officials believed the ball was still in the air when the whistle blew.
"That's correct," Anderson said. "They did not feel that the whistle was blown before the receiver caught the ball."
Getting the call wrong, by the rulebook, isn't great. It's hard to handle a statement from a senior NFL executive that repeats an incorrect decision-making process from the officials.
It was a huge play in the game. On one hand, Burrow was nowhere near stepping out of bounds, and the whistle shouldn't have come. So it would have robbed Cincinnati of a touchdown. But the way it was called, the Raiders were robbed.
To many, the play shouldn't have counted due to the erroneous whistle.
"What they should have done, because it was an erroneous whistle, was actually replay the down. Because it was a loose ball in flight," Terry McAulay, NBC's officiating analyst, said on the broadcast. "They can't have a touchdown on that play, by rule."
"when an official sounds the whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately" pic.twitter.com/bN2VeH1r7m
— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) January 15, 2022
That's a big decision that went against the Raiders, and wrongly so. Their defensive backs might not have gotten to Boyd anyway, but they have to let up on the whistle or risk a personal foul for a hit after the play. It's an impossible spot to put them in. Given that it was a third down, it was a massive play in the first playoff game of the postseason.
"The officials cannot do this," NBC analyst Tony Dungy said at halftime. "You can't just disregard a rule and act like it didn't happen."
This call definitely went against the Raiders when it shouldn't have. Less than one half into the playoffs, the NFL had an officiating controversy.